Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Gary Dunaier
Rickles was known as “Mr. Warmth” and “The Merchant of Venom.”
By Michael V. Cusenza
Legendary acerbic entertainer and Jackson Heights native Don Rickles died last Thursday in Los Angeles of end-stage renal disease. He was 90 years old.
“One of the bravest, funniest, and sweetest guys that ever performed,” tweeted Brooklyn-born funnyman Mel Brooks. “A dear pal that we will all sorely miss.”
According to the Internet Movie Database, Rickles’ career spanned more than 60 years, including 85 credits as an actor and top stand-up comic. Affectionately known as “Mr. Warmth” and “The Merchant of Venom,” Rickles’ trademark was his deft ability to at once insult and incite laughter.
Don Rickles was born in New York City on May 8, 1926. An only child, he grew up in Jackson Heights on 32nd Avenue and attended PS 148 and later graduated from Newtown High School.
“What I remember most about Jackson Heights is that I left,” Rickles told the Wall Street Journal in 2015. “The neighborhood was dear to me when I was growing up. My parents were very active in the synagogue two blocks away, and I was in every activity there as a young man, including shows and the Boy Scouts.”
According to Rickles’ official website, after earning his high school diploma, Rickles enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served for two years during World War II on the USS Cyrene as a seaman first class. He was honorably discharged in 1946, and moved on study at and graduate from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Unable to get a significant amount of acting work, Rickles began doing stand-up comedy. He became known as an “insult” comedian because he would respond to his hecklers in kind.
“In school, I wasn’t a wiseguy. I had the same attitude that I have on stage today,” Rickles said in the Journal piece. “My personality is such that I’m never hurtful and I can get away with being a smart aleck. People just need to know up front that your intent isn’t personal.”
Rickles, according to his site, considered his stand-up performance at President Ronald Reagan’s Second Inaugural Ball in 1985 “the highlight of his career.” Rickles, in his signature style, lobbed insults at Reagan, Vice President Bush and many other national dignitaries at the televised gala.
Two lauded theatrical roles marked the latter part of Rickles acting career. In 1995, he played “Billy Sherbert” opposite Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci in Martin Scorsese’s classic Vegas gangster flick, “Casino.” And, beginning in ’95, Rickles voiced Mr. Potato Head in each installment of the “Toy Story” series.
“What he had was more precious, and perhaps more difficult to come by. He had himself. He was totally Rickles,” New York-native Billy Crystal wrote in Variety after hearing of Rickles’ death. “There was no one like him. He could insult anyone with hilarious unscripted jokes that, if examined, would unfold like rare flowers. People actually looked forward to being insulted by him. It became a huge compliment, and you felt insulted if he didn’t insult you. And what makes it more amazing was that he worked clean. No easy crutch for Don. No F bombs, no nasty words. Just pure funny.”